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'Trap' tool helps network manager get ahead of help calls

The wide area network specialist for a Washington state agency is using a "trap" tool from Ipswitch Inc. to alert him to network issues before they become a problem.

Managing an extended network is no easy task, but just because a network is complicated doesn't mean appropriate network management tools should cost a fortune.

The Washington State Employment Security Department has a complex network. It's headquartered in Olympia, Wash., and has 70 remote locations across the state. Michael Stout, the organization's wide area network (WAN) specialist, used to manage the network by simply responding to help desk calls. But doing so, he said, left him always playing catch-up, trying to put out the latest fire.

Some of the agency's offices are so remote and so non-tech savvy that when they lost connection to the centralized employment databases, it took them days to alert Stout to the problem.

And even when he became aware of a given problem, it could be hard to track down the culprit. The network is a maze of 70 routers and 15 switched networks that use T1 lines, frame relay and virtual private networks (VPNs) to connect the local offices to the mainframe computer that runs the organization's databases.

About 18 months ago, Stout installed a network management product from Lexington, Mass.-based Ipswitch Inc.

The product, WhatsUp Gold, allows network managers to create a graphical representation of their networks. It not only tells managers which devices are working or not, but it also helps them troubleshoot, said Kelly Anderson, Ipswitch's product marketing manger.

The management program is one of the more powerful midmarket management tools available, said Tere Bracco, vice president of enterprise systems and solutions at the Sterling, Va.-based research firm Current Analysis. One of the things that separates it from the more basic tools like TeVista from Luton, England-based Chevin is its ability to do Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) management, Bracco said.

With SNMP "traps," network-monitoring systems like Ipswitch's can collect information detailing a device's performance that can help network mangers determine why there is a problem. "With WhatsUp Gold, you can find out what was going on, not just whether a device is up or down or experiencing dropped packets," Bracco said. "You can find out why the packets dropped."

The product is also useful for creating reports, and it can notify mangers of network problems in real time, said Anderson. It's also relatively intuitive to use, Bracco said. However, it is not a replacement for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView or IBM's Tivoli suite, Bracco stressed. It is a midrange tool that provides a better understanding of network functioning than the most basic approaches on the market. But it lacks the sophistication of the more expensive systems.

Ipswitch has been targeting the small to medium-sized businesses with the product, a group that Bracco said is well suited to its functionality.

With this product, Stout said, he can be much more proactive about fixing problems. He is often able to identify network issues before users bump into them. And remote office employees no longer sit in the dark for days, unsure of how to fix their problems.

While it is not anywhere near as complex as a product suite like OpenView, WhatsUp Gold is not necessarily something you can deploy and have running instantly. Though Anderson said that the product could be up and running in a day, that was not Stout's experience.

Stout said that it was more than a week before the product was deployed. Much of the delay was due to the lack of knowledge of his own network. He had to track down and catalog IP addresses for all the devices in his network, information he had had little need to compile before.

WhatsUp Gold Version 8.0 starts at $795.


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